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A day in the life of a female handicraft worker in Viet Nam

Viet Nam's small-scale handicraft industry provides jobs and a regular income especially for women. However, workers face various health hazards ranging from air pollution and toxic chemicals. This piece looks at the day in the life of a woman worker in a lacquer craft village in Viet Nam and her daily health risks.

Women do the task of gold plating. The fine gold dust gets blown everywhere around the room and the ground.
Photo: Thanh Vu.

Date published
14 June 2022
A story from
Ha Thai Craft Village, Viet Nam

Viet Nam’s small-scale craft villages provide employment for almost 11 million workers and are often a significant source of additional income for rural households. Craft villages range across rattan and bamboo furniture, silk weaving and embroidery to lacquer paintings and handicrafts.

Ha Thai Craft Village, where this study was conducted, has a tradition of nearly 300-years of lacquer production. Currently, Ha Thai Craft Village has about 100 production facilities with 250 households engaged in producing lacquer handicrafts. On average, workers can earn around $8-11 per day for women and men respectively. The lacquer handicraft villages mostly employ young to middle-aged women.

The workers in the lacquer craft villages face many health risks due to unsafe or poorly ventilated working areas and the daily exposure to chemical paints, solvents and machinery.

Ms L 1, aged 36, has worked in a lacquer craft village for the last 13 years. She used to work as a garment worker, but the working hours were not convenient as she needed time to take care of her children, so she quit and started making lacquer handicrafts.

Ms L is aware of the risks to her health from lacquer production. However, like many others in her village, the livelihood choices, especially for women are minimal.

“Working in a lacquer handicraft village is more harmful to my health than working in a garment factory because of the air pollution from chemicals,” she said “In the garment shop, I earned more money too, since I was a workshop manager. However, there is no one else to take care of my children, so I switched to making lacquer handicrafts. On average, I get around VND 5-6 million per month ($220-250), but sometimes I also don’t have any work for one or two months every year.”

[1] For reasons of personal security, interviewee names are kept anonymous.

A worker makes the base of a lacquer product usually from wood or medium density fibreboard, ceramic or bamboo. After making the base, workers use their hands to mix alluvial soil (or stone powder) with paint to seal the cracks of the base. Once the paint is dry, the base will be polished and wrapped with fabric then painted over to protect it from water or termites. Photo: Thanh Vu.

Paint is mixed with stone powder and sawdust and applied on the surface several times. Then sandpaper is used to grind and smooth the surface of the lacquer product. This is followed by the application of a primer of paint diluted with kerosene oil. Photo: Thanh Vu.

Daily health hazards of lacquer production

Each stage of lacquer production contains different kinds of exposure to toxic chemicals and air pollution, as well as unsafe working conditions.

“When I first started this job, I was not used to it, so I got abscesses all over my toes and fingers,” said Ms L. “It took me a few months to heal. I continued working despite the pain. After some time, workers get used to the pain. Now I wear gloves when working since otherwise my skin dries out and peels away. The grinding process also produces a lot of dust. We have a dust blower or dust collector pipe to reduce the dust. Everyone is supposed to wear a facemask to protect us from the dust.”

When grinding the products, workers use a fan to blow the dust into a cloth bag. The fine dust will be mixed with water and then poured down the drain. Photo: Thanh Vu.

The women are doing “hydraulic grinding” using sandpaper along with water to make the surface smooth. This produces less dust and helps to wash away the dirt. Photo: Thanh Vu.

The most toxic stage in lacquer production is the spray painting, usually done in a special paint spraying room, mainly by men. However, the strong smell of the chemicals leak out and affects the workers outside. Photo: Thanh Vu.

A spray paint machine is used to paint the handicrafts. The room is equipped with an exhaust fan and a suction pipe to push out the paint smell. Photo: Thanh Vu.

“My respiratory system is not too good. If there is spray painting on a given day, I have to move to another workshop. The strong odor from the paint gives me breathing problems and a headache. I am no longer able to stand the strong chemical smell of fresh paint. Sometimes the smell of the paint rushes into my nose and down my throat. The odor makes me feel like I'm drunk and nauseous, although I'm unable to vomit. This makes me much more exhausted than even car sickness. Even after a small amount of exposure to the smell, my hands and feet start shaking and I have to take a break for several hours before I can resume work.”

— Ms L

Lacquer handicrafts are often decorated with drawings and paintings. Photo: Thanh Vu.

During the lacquer decoration stage, workers apply gold and silver leaves along with some hand-drawn figures. Depending on the customer, some products may be decorated with real gold and silver leaves. Women are often tasked with the decoration as it requires detailed effort and is very hard work.

The decoration stage is usually done in a closed room to prevent outside dust from sticking to the product. The gold or silver dust is very light and flies around the room, so the room is equipped with a fan to suck the dust out. The constant exposure to the fine particles of metal dust poses a huge respiratory hazard. It can also be physically and mentally exhausting to continue doing it day after day.

Ms L. thinks she will not do this job for too long.

“I’m not as physically fit any more for this work,” she said. “I’ll keep going for now, but will stop once I can’t take the dust and the paint smell anymore.”

Women do the task of gold plating. The fine gold dust gets blown everywhere around the room and the ground

Women do the task of gold plating. The fine gold dust gets blown everywhere around the room and the ground. Photo: Thanh Vu.

Women make the gold plating together in a closed room while wearing cloth masks and hats to protect themselves from the fine dust. There are exhaust fans at the base of the wall to suck the dust out. Photo: Thanh Vu.

This Ngoc Am wooden statue was carved completely by hand. A process that took several months. Once the carving is complete, the statue is processed to become a lacquer product using different stages including painting, smoothing and polishing. Finally, the product is plated with 9999 gold leaves. The entire gold plating for this statue used about 80 grams of gold and the gold plating took a whole day to finish. Photo: Thanh Vu.

Lacquer handicarfts are especially used for items of workship used in people’s homes. These pictures show a set of fresco doors, a decorative wooden scroll, couplets, altar table, altar throne and altar.

Lacquer handicrafts are especially used for items of worship in people’s homes. This picture shows a lacquer set of fresco doors, a decorative wooden scroll, couplets, altar table, altar throne and the main altar. Photo: Thanh Vu.

This photo essay is from the SEI study of air pollution in the world of work with country case studies. “The intersectional impacts of air pollution on the world of work of informal labor groups in craft villages in Hanoi, Vietnam” was undertaken by the Institute of Human Studies and the Institute of Human Geography in cooperation with SEI and the International Labour Organization and supported by the International Development Research Centre.